Councillors' 'disappointment' at High Court judgement on remote council meetings
Deborah Price, Local Democracy Reporter
- Credit: Herts County Council
Senior Herts county councillors - from all political parties - say a ruling that council meetings must be face-to-face is "disappointing".
For the past 12 months, councils have been allowed to meet remotely, in line with time-limited powers in the coronavirus regulations, but despite a High Court bid by Herts County Council, the rules changed when those regulations ceased on May 7.
Local government minister Luke Hall has now written to council leaders to tell them that councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings, and that they should prepare accordingly.
With the continuing need for social distancing, councils are having to consider the use of alternative venues or measures such as the installation of plastic screens in council chambers.
In Herts, leading members of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour groups say they have been "disappointed" by the High Court decision.
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Deputy leader of the county council, Conservative Cllr Teresa Heritage said allowing meetings to be held remotely would have brought councils in line with rules governing corporate organisations, and she said the decision has raised awareness of how "outdated" local government rules are.
She pointed to the benefits of remote meetings, which she says includes a reduction in travelling time and car emissions and improved public access to democracy, and she said she believes efforts will continue to try and get the legislation changed.
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Cllr Heritage said: “Over the period of shutdown we found more residents had become more engaged in democracy because of being able to go online and listen more.
“It’s opened up democracy a lot more, which is what we have been trying to do.”
Leader of the Liberal Democrat group, Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst also believes the decision of the High Court was “disappointing”.
He said it is “unreasonable” of the government not to have made parliamentary time to legislate, to allow remote meetings to continue while COVID was a risk, and he hopes the Secretary of State would bring forward parliamentary time to do so.
Cllr Giles-Medhurst also pointed to those councillors who will be wary about returning to face to face meetings – and to the ‘huge’ extra costs of making premises ‘safe’.
He highlighted the advantages of remote meetings – suggesting they cut out the travel between meetings, save time, increase sustainability and increase public engagement.
And he said: “What has been quite clear during coronavirus is that there has been more public engagement with having virtual meetings – with the public being able to livestream and listen to what being said.”
Leader of the Labour group Cllr Judi Billing described the judgment of the High Court as “desperately disappointing”.
“We will do our best to comply with the legislation but I am still hoping that the government will decide to legislate very quickly,” she said.
“Surely they must realise how unfair and unjust it is.”
Cllr Billing sad the council will be faced with finding alternative venues or spending "ridiculous amounts of money" on measures such as screens.
But she said the alternative that worries her the most is mechanisms that would reduce the number of councillors required at meetings or where powers would be delegated to officers.
“Those last two would take away from local democracy and I don’t think are acceptable,” she said.
Cllr Billing also recognises that there will be some members who will be nervous about being packed in to a space with 77 other councillors and officers, and she said she will be supporting any challenges made in order to find a quick solution.
She also pointed to the "marvellous work" locally where councillors have been able to use technology to connect with residents, who have not contacted then before
In a letter sent to all council leaders, government minister Luke Hall highlighted the judgment of the High Court.
He said that the judgment found that the Local Government Act 1972 "does not allow local authorities to hold meetings virtually", and that the government had concluded that it was not possible to secure primary legislation to extend the current regulation before May 6.
Mr Hall also pointed to updated government guidance that he said highlighted "ways in which councils can, if necessary, minimise the need for, or risks of, face-to-face meetings".